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Why Poland Punishes Those Who Accuse It of the Holocaust

February 7, 2018 in History

By Erin Blakemore

Adolf Hitler overseeing his military troop during the Nazi occupation of Poland, 1939. (Credit: Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Auschwitz. Treblinka. The Warsaw Ghetto. During World War II, Poland became the epicenter of the Nazis’ crimes—but soon, implying that those crimes were committed by the Polish state will itself be a crime. A controversial new law in Poland makes it illegal to accuse the nation of being complicit with Nazi crimes like the Holocaust. It also outlaws the phrase “Polish death camps.” Both are punishable by prison sentences of up to three years.

The law has provoked an academic and diplomatic firestorm, drawing criticism from historians and rebukes from people like Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, who said the law “adversely affects freedom of speech and academic inquiry.” Israel’s memorial to Holocaust victims, Yad Vashem, called the legislation “liable to blur the historical truths regarding the assistance the Germans received from the Polish population during the Holocaust.”

Those historical truths have long been the subject of passionate debate—and are sensitive in Poland, which suffered immense persecution and loss during World War II. Adolf Hitler didn’t just wage war against Poland: He wanted to wipe the country off the map entirely and re-populate it with Germans. Three million Polish Jews were murdered in the Holocaust; another 3 million Polish civilians and military personnel are thought to have perished at the hands of the Nazis. Nearly 18 percent of Poland’s population died during World War II, including 90 percent of Polish Jews, the largest group of Jews murdered in the Holocaust.

Adolf Hitler overseeing his military troop during the Nazi occupation of Poland, 1939. (Credit: Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Poland’s experience under Nazi occupation was different than that of many of its European neighbors. Occupied Poland’s government did not collaborate with the Nazis—it was replaced by a German administrative government that set about “Germanizing” Poland. This entailed forcing Poles off of their land to make room for Germans, rounding up intellectuals and political elites, prohibiting the Polish language in some areas, and closing or destroying cultural and educational institutions. An estimated 50,000 Polish children were kidnapped by the Nazis, resettled with German elites or killed.

The Nazis saw occupied Poland as the ideal site not only for German resettlement, but also for the extermination of Jews. Hundreds of ghettos and concentration camps were built by the …read more


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